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'We are witnessing today an Arab people's revolution'

By Salman Shaikh, Special to CNN
  • Salman Shaikh says uprisings herald new Arab, post-Islamist people's revolution
  • He says it's transformative, nothing short of the birth of Arab politics
  • He says it was propelled by youth, digital technology, increased literacy
  • Shaikh: The West must strike balance: Support democracy and ensure peace in region

Editor's note: Salman Shaikh is a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution and the Director of the Brookings Institution's Doha Center. in Doha, Qatar. He focuses on mediation and conflict resolution in the Middle East and South Asia, and has also worked for the United Nations, including a post as a special adviser to the U.N. secretary-general on the Middle East. Brookings is a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit public policy think tank.

(CNN) -- We are in the midst of a brave new world.

The uprisings raging from Tunisia to Egypt to Yemen are heralding a new Arab, post-Islamist revolution.

Today's events across Egypt illustrate the futility of a dictatorial Mubarak regime seeking to push back the tides of history with mere repression and brutality. They will not succeed.

President Hosni Mubarak's days, like those of deposed Tunisian President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, are numbered. The effects on the region were, until today, unthinkable.

Today's Arab revolution is no less significant than those that preceded it in recent decades in Eastern Europe and Latin America. This time, Arabs are not being led by their leaders -- from colonialism to pan-Arabism or Islamism or any other "ism" -- as was the case in the past.

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Instead, they have turned on those leaders who have failed to provide them their dignity, justice and a better life. Make no mistake, we are witnessing today an Arab people's revolution.

Like those before them, today's Arab revolution will transform the region's politics. What is happening today is nothing short of what the respected Arab commentator, Rami Khouri, prophetically described late last year as the birth of Arab politics. He was right. Politics in the region will never be the same again.

Propelled by the young and the digital revolution, citizens will demand nothing less than the right to choose and change their representatives in the future.

To glimpse the nature of what can emerge, we should understand the rapidly changing social structure of Arab societies. Those societies are more educated, urban and connected than ever before. Due to the phenomenal growth of secondary and university-level education, literacy rates among the region's youths have skyrocketed in the past 40 years. The percentage of people living in Arab cities has risen by 50% in the same period.

The number of mobile phone users and internet users has proliferated to hundreds of thousands since the technology was introduced to the region 10 or 15 years ago. No wonder, then, that the people have finally snapped at the lack of opportunity and representation and the high levels of corruption and control that characterize their lives.

Most tellingly, more has united the protesting people than divided them. Notable has been the absence of a clear, emerging leader of the protests, particularly from Islamist party leadership.

The call for dignity, justice and a better life has been a universal value -- not the domain of any one particular opposing party or movement. Instead, the national movements, which these conditions have spawned, will continue to demand a political system that is more pluralistic, democratic and produces effective and competent governments sensitive to the legitimate aspirations of all the society's people.

Crucially, the unfolding events will also require a new set of calculations from the old regimes' main backers: the United States and its allies. The long-term changes for Western policy in the region should be profound. Gone should be the reflex to side with those who willfully subvert the democratic and constitutional process out of fear of the Islamist boogeyman.

The binary calculation between supporting stability on the one hand and the risks of unprecedented regime change, particularly the rise to power of Islamist parties, no longer holds. The people of the region are deciding.

The irony is that while U.S. policymakers have been playing catch-up, it has largely been U.S.-created technology -- the internet, particularly Facebook and Twitter -- that has sustained the spread of the Arab revolution.

Now is the time for policymakers to suggest an appropriate response to support a peaceful political transition in each country. Western policymakers must strike a careful balance between ensuring key interests (including support for a comprehensive peace in the Arab-Israeli conflict and Israel's security) and respecting the wishes of the region's people. In this regard, support for the peace process and Israel's interests will best be ensured by real and tangible progress over the next year.

In the case of Egypt, the most populated Arab nation and symbol of Arab leadership, the transition will be particularly important. If managed well, it will provide a useful example for all in the days and weeks ahead. The U.S. in particular has a role in persuading Mubarak to outline a peaceful transition of power to an interim administration that will manage the process to a new democratic constitution and elections.

There should also be a role for international and regional organizations such as the United Nations, the European Union, the Gulf Council and the Organization of the Islamic Conference to lend technical and material support to the transition.

It has not been lost on many that the U.S. and other Western governments have been trying to catch up to the unfolding events -- attempting to balance support for old friends and allies with a call for restraint and urgent economic and political reforms.

This will not do. It is time to break through the past fears that have guided Western policy with fresh hope for a better future for the people of the region. It is time to choose change.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Salman Shaikh.

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